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Turkey Care

Last Updated: 10/20/07

General Care and Maintenance

I started renovating my bird pages in October of 2006. By July 2007, it was obvious they were not going to be finished if I added all the new information to the pages that I had initially intended. In order to get what I have written linked into the pages, I decided to just note which pages were unfinished and link them all in. This is one of those pages that is not complete. I am sorry.

I have not redone the index for this page or yet expanded the information.


General Care and Maintenance

This applies to all turkeys, domestic and wild varieties. They are all the same species. Aside from domestic turkeys being fatter and physically different, being unable to fly or breed naturally, and having even less intelligence, they are essentially the same as wild turkeys when it comes to care (except for breeding which must be done artificially in domestic turkeys).

I wanted to add a few things but do not know where to put them on this page. Almost all males have beards and most females do not but there are a good amount (maybe a few percent) or females that do have beards. Hence, the beard alone cannot be used for sexing a wild turkey. Some females also grow larger spurs but rarely as large as a mature male. Debbie e-mailed me to ask on 6/10/05 if her wild turkey was female. She had laid eggs but had a beard and spurs. Well, if the eggs come out, that is the 100% sure way to know that the turkey is female. Males cannot lay eggs!

Cage

Domestic turkeys can be kept like goats in fences but wild turkeys fly very well. Unless you intend to clip their wings often, you need a totally enclosed cage. It should be at least 80 square feet and at least 6 feet high for one or two turkeys. More is much better if you care for these animals instead of keeping them for human food. The cage should be 1 or 2 inch chicken wire or other wire (PVC coated is best) all over with supported wooden framework. The cage should have stiff metal dog wire of about 3-4 feet tall along the bottom in addition to the flimsy chicken wire. Besides keeping out dogs, turkeys can really fly into or kick fencing. A roost (beam of wood or branch) is needed. Also, at least in the winter, part of the cage should be covered to provide a rain, snow, sleet, hail, and wind break. Turkeys will not move to shelter in bad weather. This often leads to them being called stupid. My hen died during a cold rain (she was naked due to a late total moult) from which she did not get out. You must put a tarp or shelter wherever they roost.

Be sure the door is secure with a spring lock and that you and a shovel can fit through. If a wheelbarrow can fit through, that is even better. The floor can be dirt (in my case), dirt with hay, wood, or cement. Cement is the only one that can be cleaned well but it is worst on the turkeys' feet. Unless a rot proof wood is used with narrow slats to let liquids out, a wood floor is not a great idea. Turkey feces are usually dry enough to not rot wood but they can get diarrhea which would quickly foul any floor. With dirt floors, you just use a shovel to remove waste every week or so. As dirt is removed over time, haul fresh dirt back in. Turkeys love nothing more than scratching in loose dirt. I used the resulting hole from digging up fresh dirt to dump future waste that I removed.

If you have a hen, provide a nest box. My box is 22" deep by 24" wide. The height from ground to the top of the box is 24" in the back and 25" in the front. The top has shingles on it and a slight slope. The front which is open has an 8" plywood lip on it to hold in the bedding. I use straw but dried leaves and grasses would be more soft and natural. If you plan on having a hen brood, then some sort of ramp for the poults to get out might be in order, or they would fall 8" to the ground with the lip on it.

It is usually best to keep turkeys by themselves and not with other species of bird. For example, many chickens may carry the parasite called blackhead which is pretty harmless to chickens but can kill turkeys. Here is one link on that subject: Black head.

Food

Pellets, fruits, and vegetables:
The basis of my turkey's diet was Market Bird Finisher, formerly Turkey Finisher, from Southern States. It is a grain pellet with corn, like a yellow rabbit pellet. On top of this, I added about a Tablespoon per turkey of Quaker Multigrain cereal. You can add cheap oatmeal to save money. This is not a necessary food. Only the pellet and some grit and water are necessary to keep turkeys alive. If you want happy turkeys, then feed them fruits and vegetables too. These include the ultimate favorite grapes, kale, grass, weeds, some leaves, any kind of berry sold for people, wine berries, Russian olive berries, poison ivy berries (wow!), wild grapes, honeysuckle berries, sassafras tree berries, dogwood tree berries, acorns, wild nuts and fruits, broken open apples, etc. They are very opportunistic. Things that they will not touch when there is a lot of food, they will woof down in winter. For example, clippings from white pine are the only wild foods I had to offer in winter. The turkeys ate the needles.

Oyster shells, grit, and water:
Feed adult hens crushed oyster shells for the calcium to make their eggs. Turkeys also need small rocks or grit for their gullet to grind food. I used to have a rock and dirt road so I got some from there. Now, I will have to use sands or oyster shell. Also, be sure they always have clean water to drink.

Insects, worms, etc.:
Finally, wild turkeys also eat insects and small animals. Up until the age of about two months, poults (baby turkeys) prefer insects. As adults, turkeys will eat certain small animals if they catch their attention but mainly stick to a vegetarian diet. Poults can be fed earthworms, crickets, mealworms (beetle larvae), spiders, beetles, etc. which can be bought at pet stores, bait shops, or caught by hand. Sometimes feeding live insects may be needed if the poults do not take to turkey or market bird starter food. My adult turkeys ignored earthworms and slugs but seemed to still go for the occasionally fast moving cricket or other hopping bug.

Maintenance

Use a flat edged shovel to scrape the bottom of the cage every week if you have just a few turkeys. Throw the mix of dirt, turkey feces, feathers, leaves, and left over food in a hole in the ground or some other compost or manure pile. If the floor is dirt, replace with fresh dirt as needed.

Breeding

As it is illegal here to breed turkeys without a permit, I will not discuss it in depth (well, it turns out I do!). Males gobble in clearings for females. In what must be painful, the tom tramples on the hen while breeding. She goes off and finds a place to lay her eggs a few days later. The hen will avoid the tom while incubating and tending young but may return while in the midst of laying to mate again. She makes a crude nest of leaves, twigs, and debris, on the ground in a sheltered area. The hen lays one egg a day for about two weeks. Each egg is unique, a light tan with brown and white dots on it.

Picture of my hen's nest with 4 eggs in it, 4/24/94.

Bonnie would lay about 12-14 eggs at a time before destroying them at which point, she would start all over again. After a wild hen has laid all the eggs, she incubates them for four weeks, leaving them for a few minutes each day to feed. Before leaving, she covers them with leaves, etc. to hide them from predators and keep them from losing too much heat. Bonnie did cover the eggs when she left. If the weather is bad, a wild hen may not leave the eggs for days. If the tom irritates her (like in a confined cage, my situation) or some predator invades the nest, she will abandon the nest, even if viable eggs are still present.

All the poults (baby turkeys) hatch around the same time. They leave with the mother to peck up small insects and later seeds and plants. After about a month, they fly up to the roost with her to sleep for the night. They usually stay with her until the next Spring.

My turkeys bred and produced eggs but my hen would not sit on them. Artificial incubation is necessary for the four week incubation in this case. If you have a permit and would like more details on breeding, you can E-mail me. Release of wild turkeys is also prohibited as some people are afraid that released turkeys may not be 100% whatever species of wild turkey is in the area. Only government groups can release turkeys. No one told us this until after we had our turkeys. If my hen's eggs had hatched, her poults could never have been legally released. I think that if an official deems them 100% wild species, release should be allowed. Officials have released their own bred stock in a state park abutting our property. We have only had about two confirmed sightings of loose wild turkeys. As about 1500 acres of abandoned farmland in the area is being turned into a city, I am sure we will never again see them.

I have had reports from at least two sources that their male turkeys have sat on, incubated, and hatched turkey eggs. In at least one case, the female was helping. Male turkeys lack a brood patch of naked skin but somehow, they are able to very rarely incubate eggs. Most male turkeys just want to mess up nests, not help! Rene in Canada told me on 8/14/07, that his Bourbon red turkey tom was sitting on a nest of Muscovy duck eggs! The ducks did hatch but Rene took them to raise. I also had someone have a peahen (female peacock) hatch out a wild turkey!

Incubating Wild Turkey Eggs:

If wild turkey eggs are to be incubated, they should be treated as with domestic turkeys. The incubation temperature should be ideally 99.5 to 100.5 degrees F with temperatures from 98 to 103 degrees F tolerated for short periods. Humidity should be kept high with a pan of water in the incubator. Wild turkey eggs hatch in about 28 days after the incubation is begun (not necessarily after the egg is laid).

For more information on the details of incubation, candling, hatching, and raising poults, refer to my page on breeding chickens. The information is almost the same for poults. The main difference is that incubation lasts an extra week so multiply dates by 4/3 to get the correct time into incubation compared to chickens. Poults can be fed turkey starter, market bird starter, game bird starter, or even chicken starter at first which most feed stores sell (at least one of those!).


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